There are two types of the Weeknd fans: Before Fifty Shades of Grey and after. The film that awakened PG-13 rated, sadomasochistic fantasies in bored housewives this year has catapulted the singer — -who until then was largely a niche fixture in hip-hop and r&b —- into the realm of commercial success. After “Earned It,” a single equal parts erotic and ready for a L’Oréal commercial with lyrics like “Girl, you’re perfect/You’re always worth it,” Abel Tesfaye is no longer in the shadows. The singer popularized by his cultish mixtapes — House of Balloons, Thursday and Echoes of Silence — is a full-blown pop star. The 25-year-old Canadian has graced the cover of Rolling Stone, performed at the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, announced that he’s headlining Jingle Ball with One Direction and Selena Gomez and will be releasing a fashion capsule collection with Alexander Wang — and that’s just in the last few weeks. The singer used to shroud himself in mystery — he gave nary an interview and often hid his face — and now he dates supermodel Bella Hadid, hangs with Kendall and Kylie Jenner and has Taylor Swift enamored of his hair.
This split, both artistically and creatively, was apparent at Madison Square Garden for the NYC stop of The Madness Tour on November 16. “I want to thank my new fans and my day one fans that supported me,” The Weeknd said at the first of the three sold-out New York City dates. The audience of mostly screaming teenage girls was in the former group, for the most part. As such, “Earned It” and tracks released subsequently from his Beauty Behind the Madness album took center stage. Fans knew every song word-for-word, from singles to album cuts like “Acquainted” to “Prisoner” (without Lana Del Rey).
The Weeknd’s set has changed to commensurate with his newfound fame. Compared to earlier shows, it’s more colorful and less sexually suggestive. There are elaborate visual displays, enormous light fixtures that resemble partially-completed Rubiks Cubes and towers that emit bursts of flames during the fan favorite “The Hills.” From the catchy “Can’t Feel My Face” to the Michael Jackson-inspired “In the Night” (which he seamlessly moved into from his cover of “Dirty Diana”), the vibe was more dance party and less drugged-out house party.
As a performer, The Weeknd is still largely stripped-down. Devoid of the usual trappings of a pop star (multiple costume changes, choreographed routines, etc.), he wore a nondescript, black-on-black look. Almost shyly, he kept behind a caged apparatus for much of the show. When he came downstage, his movement was relegated to light swaying and playful two-stepping with a handful of 360-degree turns. His biggest draw is his voice. If anything, mainstream success has bolstered the singer’s live confidence. His bright timbre sounds amazing and his falsetto is more pristine than ever. Transitioning between darker fare like “Professional” and “Glass Table Girls” into his new repertoire could be a conceptual nightmare, but his vocals hold it all together.
It’s a strange thing to go from Internet darling to household name in a calendar year. The Weeknd is still figuring it out. “New York, we came a long way from the Bowery,” he said at one point, a nod to his very first show in the city at Bowery Ballroom in 2012. “I think it’s safe to say that we’re here to stay. I think this is a very long-term relationship between me and New York.” What direction this relationship — and his music — will take is anyone’s guess. The Weeknd has his eyes on forever. “The venues keep getting bigger and bigger and bigger. Maybe next time we can do the Yankee Stadium or some shit like that? Maybe?”